The social function of the feeling and expression of guilt

Eglantine Camille Caroline Julle-Danière*, Jamie Whitehouse, Aldert Vrij, Erik Gustafsson, Bridget Waller

*Corresponding author for this work

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Humans are uniquely cooperative and form crucial short- and long-term social bonds between individuals that ultimately shape human societies. The need for such intense cooperation may have provided a particularly powerful selection pressure on the emotional and communicative behaviours regulating cooperative processes, such as guilt. Guilt is a social, other-oriented moral emotion that promotes relationship repair and pro-sociality. For example, people can be more lenient towards wrongdoers who display guilt than towards those who do not. Here, we examined the social consequences of guilt in a novel experimental setting with pairs of friends differing in relationship quality. Pairs of participants took part in a cooperative game with a mutual goal. We then induced guilt in one of the participants and informed the other participant of their partner's wrongdoing. We examined the outcome using a dictator game to see how they split a joint reward. We found that guilty people were motivated to repair wrongdoing regardless of friendship. Observing guilt in others led to a punishment effect and a victim of wrongdoing punished close friends who appeared guilty more so than acquaintances. We suggest, therefore, that guilt has a stronger function between close friends as the costs of relationship breakdown are greater. Relationship context, therefore, is crucial to the functional relevance of moral emotions.
Original languageEnglish
Article number200617
Number of pages10
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 9 Dec 2020


  • facial expression
  • guilt
  • emotion
  • friendship
  • social consequences
  • morality


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